While Ryan Grant remains the Green Bay Packers’ starting running back, James Starks has gotten more than twice as many snaps as the two-time 1,200-yard rusher.
The reason goes beyond Starks’ production in the run game, though the difference there has been dramatic enough, with Starks’ 109 carries for 503 yards (4.6 average) outdistancing Grant’s 69 carries for 251 yards (3.6 average).
“James is growing as a football player every day,” coach Mike McCarthy said after Thursday’s practice. “In today’s blitz pickup, I thought he was outstanding. No one ever questioned James’ ability to run the football. He has demonstrated that with his opportunities last year and this year. All the little things – you see him, he just has a better feel in his protection responsibilities, checkdown decisiveness, the relationship between Aaron (Rodgers) and James as far as where to be, the time clock of the passing game. He’s getting better all the time. I’m very pleased with his progress.”
The actual running of the football ranks third on the Packers’ must-excel-at list for running backs, falling behind ball security and pass protection on the list. It’s those factors that kept Starks tied to the bench for much of his rookie season until breaking through in the playoffs once he had earned the coaches’ trust.
For the season, Starks has fumbled one time in 131 total touches. His pass protection, however, remains a work in progress, which isn’t all that uncommon for a young player who must adjust to the speed of the professional game. Against Minnesota, for instance, Starks stepped outside, leaving linebacker Erin Henderson free to rush untouched up the middle and force Rodgers into a throwaway.
“If you go in the classroom, it’s just like anything, you start with the instruction, the classroom work, identifying it on the board, the film, and the practice walkthrough in the gymnasium,” McCarthy said. “He knows exactly what he needs to do. But now, the recognition of when the defense is bluffing, the speed of it, the exchange. Everybody says we made a protection call or adjustment. You don’t have time. Our calls are visual and verbal. Visual is they happen on the move. There’s no time to talk about them. It’s really doing your assignments within the speed of the game. That’s what every young player goes through.”
Suspended defensive lineman Johnny Jolly was sentenced to six years in prison for violating the terms of his probation for a drug conviction.
He will be eligible for parole in 14 months, at which point he’ll be about a month shy of his 30th birthday.
State District Judge Denise Bradley, seated in Houston, imposed the sentence despite tearful pleas from Jolly and his mother, Phyllis Jolly, to allow the 6-foot-3, 325-pound lineman to be treated for his addiction to codeine instead of going to prison. Jolly's aunt, agent and drug counselor also testified on his behalf.
''I want to go to rehab to get help,'' Jolly told the judge as he wiped away tears with a tissue.
Jolly, a starter for the Packers in 2008 and 2009. sat out the 2010 season after being suspended by the NFL indefinitely the previous July.
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Packers injury report
Out: LT Chad Clifton (hamstring). Did not participate: LB Frank Zombo (hamstring). Limited participation: LB Clay Matthews (ankle); DE Mike Neal (knee); G Josh Sitton (knee). Full: RB Ryan Grant (knee); S Morgan Burnett (hand).
Bishop and Lang, who were absent for personal reasons on Wednesday, returned and were full participants. Grant also was a full participant after being held out on Wednesday because of a cut that required a few stitches.
Buccaneers injury report
Did not participate: S Tanard Jackson (hamstring); LB Dekoda Watson (groin). Limited: T Donald Penn (foot). Full: DE Michael Bennett (groin); QB Josh Freeman (right thumb); DT Albert Haynesworth (knee); DT Frank Okam (calf).
Freeman says the thumb isn’t an issue: “I can’t really say that it’s really been that big of a deal. It gets hit every now and then, but really this past game, I can’t really say that it’s been that big of a deal.”
— With a stretch of three games in 11 days, McCarthy scrapped the usual full-pads Thursday practice in favor of shells. “I thought yesterday’s practice was a solid practice,” he said. “I felt the energy level was what it needed to be, so I took the pads off. This was probably as good of a Thursday practice as we’ve ever had. The speed and the tempo was outstanding. We were off the field 12 minutes early. We definitely benefited. I was very pleased with the practice.”
— It won’t be the infamous Snow Bowl of 1985 but the Buccaneers will be greeted by chilly and breezy weather. “I’m told it will be a little bit warmer on Sunday, but the wind was about the same (18 mph),” McCarthy said. “It was good to get out there and throw the ball.”
— If the Packers win, they’ll head to Detroit a perfect 10-0 and winners of 16 in a row – the equivalent of a full regular season. The Lions, of course, were the last team to beat Green Bay in a game in which Aaron Rodgers started and finished. In what amounted to a battle of backup quarterbacks with Rodgers lost to a concussion and Matthew Stafford sidelined with an injured shoulder.
— Haynesworth flopped in New England but Bucs coach Raheem Morris is thrilled to have him onboard after the team claimed him off waivers last week. “He gave us some quality play,” Morris said of last week’s loss to Houston. “He gave us 47 snaps, to be exact. He gave us seven tackles. If we can get him to get better and better every week, to be a contributor to this football team, which is all he wants to do, that’s what we’re looking for.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.